The typewriter, and the woman who invented a career

The Reluctant Pioneer isn’t specifically about journalism, but it certainly is related — the story of the invention of the typewriter, told in traditional “who, what, when, where” order by the woman who first made it run.

book cover -- Woman's PlaceThis radio drama — part of a series that romanticized American invention and ideals — features the creation and marketing of the first model Remington. Entrepreneur James Densmore is also a focus of the story, cajoling inventors Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden into changing the world of communication, and pitching the invention to the Remington company.

The fact that Sholes started out as a Wisconsin newspaperman is mentioned early in the radioplay, but his daughter takes center stage, while Sholes is portrayed more as an eccentric who undervalues his own invention. Vivacious June Havoc narrates the story in the role of Lillian Sholes, who became the first star demonstrator of the typewriting machine. The perhaps not terribly suspense-filled climax of the radio story is her 1870s competition with the “hand-writing champion of America.”

“A woman operating a machine — that’s very unusual,” Mr. Remington comments. And the first typewriter advertisement, at least as read during the program, promotes the completed machine as a device that will open a new occupation for women.

You also get to hear some of Remington customer Mark Twain’s early comments on using the machine, and Densmore’s pitch to Remington for the speed-writing competition.

“This contest will either put the typewriter across — or bury it so deep the devil will start typing his diary.”

The Cavalcade of America broadcast was recorded in 1951. For a more modern and scholarly treatment of the sociological and cultural impact of the writing machine, see Woman’s Place Is At The Typewriter (1984) by Margery W. Davies. Skill at the keyboard was not all it took to put women in the newsroom as reporters and editors, not just typists, but it certainly played a part. For more about two women who found their way in the turn-of-the-century newspaper world, see the Newspaper Heroes on the Air entry about former newspaper-woman Edna Ferber’s novel “Cimarron,” and its movie and radio adaptations.

Interesting footnote: Documents unearthed by radio historian Martin Grams reveal that an actual Remington #1 was used for typewriter sounds during the Sholes broadcast.

For a more comprehensive view of the many inventors of typewriters, see the Library of Congress article and links, The Typewriter – “that almost sentient mechanism” by Ellen Terrell.

Business and public relations researchers also might note that Cavalcade’s sponsor, DuPont, had more than a passing interest in the Remington name. While the Remington company sold off its typewriter business in the 1880s to a new firm that still used the name, the original Remington had continued its focus on weapons-manufacturing in 1933, when historic gunpowder-maker E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Inc., purchased a 60% share of the company.

(For more about the DuPont-sponsored radio series episodes that featured journalists, I have separate Newspaper Heroes on the Air: Cavalcade of America pages in the works, including a version of this item that may be edited or expanded in the future.)

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 19th century, cavalcade, historical figures, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

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